25 November 2017

Sylvia Plath's parents, home life and fatal depression

Otto Plath (1885-1940) was the father of poet Sylvia Plath (1932-63) but nobody seemed to know much about him. Scholars of Plath now have newly discovered FBI files, not knowing that biologist Otto had ever been investigated over alleged pro-German sympathies. Although Otto died in 1940 when Sylvia was 8, he exerted a lifelong hold on her.

The FBI started in 1908. During WW1, FBI investigators' files revealed that this Alien Enemy was det­ained over susp­ected pro-German allegiance. Otto told investigators that his family got to the USA from Grabow in Germany because of the better conditions, but he defended his homeland.

Otto apparently encount­ered discrimination at California University, and was passed over for a scientific post due to his birth in East Prussia, though he had moved to the USA in 1901 in his mid teens. The files revealed that he lost a salesman job for not buying Liberty Bonds to aid the war effort, and it was implied that he had a less than whole hearted attitude towards WW1 and to America. The FBI concluded that he was a morbid man who made no friends, and with whom no-one was really well acquainted.

Otto Plath 1930

When FBI officers noted Otto's morbid disposition, was that because he had a German character and a German accent? The FBI files recorded that Otto could not get teaching pos­itions. Later however, having graduated from North Western College and the University of Wash­ing­ton Seattle, he did obtain positions. Nonetheless they said that he had been turned down for assist­ant's roles partly because he has not the pers­on­ality that was required of an instructor at the University, being very nervous and not being able to interest students. Except for one, apparently - his wife.

From academics who knew Otto, the FBI investigators reported that his scientific work was excellent. So the officers suggested his brooding was over the bad luck he was having making a living due to his nationality and that he felt persecuted. No wonder he was brooding. Unemployment was horrible for anyone, let alone a talented university graduate.

In any case, being pro-German early in the C20th was not the same as being pro-Nazi in the late 1930s. Could it be that Otto simply missed the lost land of his childhood, the taste of German food and the country’s smells, sights, customs, language?

Family life before WW2

In 1932 he married Aurelia Schober (1906–1994 daughter of the Austrian Franz Schober), a young master's student at Boston University. That year a rather elderly Otto fathered Sylvia Plath, and later her brother Warren. 

Peter Steinberg and Heather Clark told an international  conference at Indiana university: "Sylvia had a conf­licted attitude towards her own German-Austrian identity." Her mother was of Austrian descent. It helps explain this hard-driving, intense immigrant work ethic that Plath in some ways inherited. People talk about her perfectionism as being almost part of her neurosis.

In Letters of Sylvia Plath: Vol 1 1940-1956, the first letter was written in 1940 when Plath was eight as a get-well note to Otto. He died six months later and she was shattered. I’ll never speak to God again, she told her mother. The determin­at­ion to regard herself as a victim, evident in her later poems, could be trac­ed back to Otto’s death.
Sylvia, mother Aurelia and brother Warren, 1949 

Sylvia’s earliest memories indicated that Otto was prone to depress­sion, which may suggest that he did indeed pass on a curse to his brilliant daughter. But her father’s premature death in 1940 was THE traumatic experience for the young girl, the most significant turning point in her mental health.

In her journals, she suspected that he deliberately died to spite her. All her life she had been stood up by people she loved; daddy leaving her was the start of it. Even after WW2 was well over, Plath had mixed emotions about her father, writing in her journal in 1958: "He … heiled Hitler in the privacy of his home." She wrote in her vicious poem, Daddy:

"I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbled­goo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You--
Not God but a swastika."

Otto was thus posthumously stigmatised in this poem. But was Sylvia Plath’s daddy ever pro-Nazi? Clark disagreed that Otto had Nazi sympathies before and at the beginning of WW2: He was a pac­ifist! Maybe Sylvia was mis-remem­ber­ing, or was angry towards him.

Is was possible that young lass was angry, grief-stricken, aband­oned, mortally wounded – but still found momentary release in offensive, black comedy. Peter Steinberg and others wrote Plath’s poem Daddy seemed to make light of and cons­cious­ly used the prejudices against him.

Letters continued from Smith College, Mass and then from Newnham College Cambridge, where Sylvie studied English as a Ful­bright scholar. And in her journals she unleashed a blitz of man­iacal self-hatred: She never loved Otto. She killed him. She was deadly as a cobra: What a luxury it would be to kill her, to strangle her skinny veined throat.

From Smith she wrote to her mother “Graduate school and travel abroad are not going to be stymied by any squalling, breastfed brats.” From Cambridge she wrote with fury, denouncing Newnham undergraduates as “prim, scholarly little British bitches”, and longing to strangle them. The female dons at Newnham were “Victorian grotesques”, and her own “vital curiosity” was superior to the “grubbing detail” required for a graduate thesis.

And mum Aurelia copped vitriol as well. In her diary Sylvia wrote brutally about her hatred for her mother, to whom she felt inescapably attached but whom she blamed for the death of her old father when she was eight.

Plath married another poet Ted Hughes in 1956, and had two children, Frieda and Nicholas Hughes in 1960 and 1962. She suffered from depression for much of her adult life and committed suicide, at 30, in 1963. She had placed her head in a gas oven.

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, 1959

The FBI files were discussed in Oct 2012 at an international Plath sym­posium at Indiana University. Readers can read the Conference papers as evidence, not of Otto’s pro-Nazi views, but of the conditions that ailed Sylvia. And read reviews of Plath's letters by John Carey in the Sunday Times and David Sexton in the London Evening Standard.


If the tendency to depression and suicide is genetic or learned, note that Plath's son Nicholas hanged himself at his home in Alaska in 2009. He was only 47.

21 November 2017

Lenin's epic train trip from Zurich to St Petersburg, 1917

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924} was born into a well educated, middle class family in Simbirsk, east of Moscow. The children grew up in comfort but with a strongly developed sense of justice. But when in 1887 the oldest sibling was hanged in St Petersburg for conspiring to assassinate Czar Alexander III, the family was horrified.

At university, Ulyanov absorbed the writings of Marx and Engels. On graduating law from St Peters­burg University in 1891, Lenin became a leader of a Marxist group, distributing revolut­ionary pamphlets to work­ers. He was carefully watch­ed by the police, arrested in 1895, convicted of dist­rib­uting propaganda and sentenced to 3 years in Siberia. Nadezhda Krupskaya, a young fellow traveller, join­ed him there and they married. Now called Lenin, the couple returned from Siberia and in 1906 chose exile in Western Europe.

Moving between Prague, London and Bern, publishing a radical news­paper and trying to organise an international Marxist move­ment, Lenin wrote how to transform Russia from a feud­al society into a modern workers’ paradise. He argued that revolution would come from a coalition of peasants and factory workers, the proletariat.

The longest, coldest route imaginable for travelling from Zurich to St. Petersburg 1917
Press map for details

Zurich By early WW1 in Aug 1914, Lenin & Krupskaya were in Zurich, living off family money. They had no children. 

The Altstadt is a cluster of medieval alleys that rise from the Limmat River. The Spiegelgasse, a narrow cobblestone lane, winds past the WW1 Cabaret Vol­taire and enters a leafy square with a stone fountain. #14, a tall building with a gabled rooftop, has a commemorative German plaque saying that from Feb 1916 until Ap 1917, this was the home of “Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution.”

When Lenin lived in the Altstadt, it was grotty. In Rem­in­is­cences of Lenin, Krupskaya described the dingy old house and smelly courtyard, over­looking a sausage factory. Luckily for Lenin, the owners were working-class people with a revolutionary value system, who con­demned the imp­er­ialist war. Today their rundown rooming house is renovated. 

Lenin spent his days writing tracts in Zurich’s Central Library and playing host to a stream of fellow exiles. Lenin and Krupskaya strolled along the Limmat whenever the library was close. Hammer followed Lenin’s route on the riv­er’s east bank, gazing across the narrow waterway at Zurich’s landmark church and clocktower of St Peter. Famed for its unchanging Art Nouveau décor, the popular Café Odeon was one of Lenin’s favourite spots for reading newspapers.

The Lenins rented a one-room flat in this Zurich block in 1916-17
as the block appears today

In March 15th 1917, a young revol­ut­ionary raced up the stairs to the Lenins’ room, yelling “There’s a revolution in Russia!” Appar­ent­ly enraged over food shortages, corruption and the disastrous war against the Central Powers, thousands of demonst­rat­ors had filled the streets of Petrograd, clashing with police; soldiers loyal to the czar switched their support to the prot­es­ters, forcing Nich­ol­as II to abdicate. The family was placed under house arrest. The Russian Provisional Gov­ern­ment had taken over, sharing power with the local Petrograd Soviet. Sov­iets/committees, made up of industrial workers and soldiers had begun to form across Russia.

Lenin made plans to return home. He pro­mised to pull Russia out of the war and to eliminate private property. “The people need peace, the people need bread, the people need land. And the Prov­isional Government gives you war, hunger, no bread” he declared.

Lenin, joined by 29 other revolutionary exiles, waited for the train from Zurich to Russia in April 1917 where he planned to take power on behalf of the prol­etariat. Other Russians was enraged that the revolutionaries had arr­an­ged passage by negotiating with the German enemy.” Did German financiers secretly fund Lenin and his circle, at the very time the German gov­ern­ment was in a brutal war against Russia? It didn't matter. Lenin travelled in a sealed train, one that moved internationally without its passengers being recognised as entering or leaving the nations they crossed. 100 years ago later, Joshua Hammer decided to retrace Lenin’s trip, curious to see how the great Bolshevik imprinted himself on Russia and the nations he passed through, on this epic train trip.

On board Lenin wrote by telegram to the Bolsh­eviks in the Petrograd Soviet, urging no comp­rom­ise: “Our tactics: no support to the new government;...arming of the proletariat the sole guarant­ee; no rapprochement with other parties.”

A Deutsche Bahn regional train second-class compartment took Hammer across Germany to the Baltic port of Rostock. Stepping onto the deck on a cold, drizzly night, he passed the last jetty and headed into the open sea, bound north for Trelleborg Sweden. The sea was rougher when Lenin made the crossing aboard a Swedish ferry, but Lenin had stayed outside anyhow, joining others in revolut­ion­ary anthems.

Sweden Ploughing through the blackness of the Baltic night, Hammer could imagine the excitement that Lenin felt as his ship moved homewards. After standing in the drizzle, Hammer headed to his spartan cabin to sleep, before the vessel docked in Sweden at 4:30 AM. From Trelleborg, he caught a train north to Stock­holm, as Lenin did, riding past lush meadows and forests. Once in the Swedish capital, he followed in Lenin’s footsteps down the crowded main commercial street, to the elegant Hotel PUB. Swedish social­ist friends brought Lenin here to be properly outfitted, before his arrival in Russia.

Across the canal to the Gamla Stan-Old Town is a cluster of medieval alleys on a small island, the site of another monum­ent to Lenin’s Swedish stay. Situated in the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art, it consists of a backdrop of black granite and a strip of cobble­­stones embedded with iron tram tracks. The work honours an iconic photo of Lenin in the Vasagatan, wearing a fedora and umbrella.

To the north, Haparanda is a lonely outpost in the Swedish Lapland tundra. It was once a thriving outpost for trade in minerals, fur and timber, and the main northern crossing point into Fin­land over the Torne River. Vestiges remain of the town’s rustic past: wood-shingle trad­ing houses; Stadshotell Inn; and Handelsbank, a Vict­orian building with cupolas and a curving grey-slate roof.

Finland The horse-drawn sleds along the frozen Torne in Hap­ar­anda in April took the comrades across to Fin­land, which had been annexed by Czar Alexander I in 1809. They expected to be turned back at the border or perhaps det­ained, but they were warmly welcomed instead.

In Finland the white dome of the C18th Alatornio Church rose over a forest of birches. Inside the monumental neo-Classical brick railroad station, the waiting room has a bronze plaque mounted on a blue tile wall: “Here Lenin passed through Haparanda on April 15th 1917, on his way from exile in Switzerland to Petrograd in Russia.”

Hammer spent the night in bleak Kemi, walking in the freezing rain through the deserted streets to a concrete-block hotel near the water­front. Then he took the train south to Tampere, a riverside city where Lenin briefly stopped on his way to Petrograd. Later the Finns turned the Work­ers’ Hall meeting room into a Lenin Museum, filling it with Lenin souvenirs.

Enthusiastic crowds welcomed Lenin to Finland Station in Petrograd, April 1917.
Painted by Mikhail Sokolov in 1930
Photo credit: The Economist

As the train had crossed Scandinavia, watching the frozen ground endlessly flash by, Hammer “felt” Lenin, reading, dispatching messages to his comrades, looking out at the same vast skies and infinite horizon. In the morning Hammer boarded the Allegro high-speed train at Hel­sin­ki Central Station for the 3.5-hour final trip. He settled into the first-class car, sped past birch and pine forests and soon approached the Russian border. And finally into Finland Station, Petersburg.

Russia Hammer followed Lenin’s route to Petrograd: Kshes­inskaya Mansion, an Art Nouveau villa. See the elegant block-long villa, interconnected structures built of stone and brick, featuring decorative metalwork and coloured tiles. This villa, including the office where Lenin worked daily until July 1917, was later declared a state museum.

At first Lenin and his wife lived with his sister and brother-in-law, director of a Petro­grad marine insurance company, in Lenina St. The building’s curator showed the salon where Lenin once strategised with other rev­ol­utionaries. Hammer noted Len­in’s samovar, piano and a chess table with a secret com­partment to hide materials from the police. [The Provisional Government had turn­ed against the Bol­sheviks in July and Lenin was moving between safe hous­es].

Smolny Institute, an early C19th school for rich girls became the staging ground of the October Revolut­ion. In Oct 1917 Trotsky, chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, mobilised Red Guards, rebellious troops and sailors, and prepared them to seize power from the now disliked Provisional Government. On Oct 25 Lenin entered Smolny, and the Bolsheviks swept aside their socialist rivals in a coup d’état. Smolny was chosen by Lenin as Bolshevik Centre (now a Museum) and remained his home for several months, until the national government was moved to the Moscow Kremlin. 
Smolny Institute today
with a Lenin sculpture in the foreground.

6 months after his return to Russia, Lenin was the ruler of his country. Hammer had followed the trajectory of a figure that changed the world, even after Lenin died in 1924.

In perfect time for the 100 year anniversary, Catherine Merridale wrote a fine book called Lenin on the Train, published by Metropolitan Books in 2017.

18 November 2017

"One Nation" in Australia and extreme right wing political parties across Europe

The cultural and linguistic diversity of Australia's resident population has been reshaped over many years by migration. In 2015, 28.2% of the resident population was born over­seas (6.7 million persons). As would be expected from a major member of the British Commonwealth of nations, the greatest proportion of these migrants came from the United Kingdom (5%) and New Zeal­and (3%). And increasingly, migrants are arriving from China (2.0%), India (2%), the Philippines (1%) and Viet­nam (1%). The fastest rate of increase over this period was for people born in Nepal, Pakistan, Brazil, India and Bang­ladesh.

As a result of this diversity, Pauline Hanson's party, One Nation, has arisen as a strongly nationalist, right-wing and populist party in Australia. One Nation was founded in 1997, by then-member of the Conservative Party in Federal parliam­ent, Pauline Hanson. Dis-endorsement came before the 1996 federal election because of comments she made about Indigenous Australians, Muslims, Asians & immigration. Hanson also critic­ised the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

Condemning multiculturalism, One Nation has rallied against government immigration and multicultural policies. Along with Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews, she once drew a link between African migrants and “crime, HIV, TB and leprosy”. Hanson said "You can't bring people into the country who are incompatible with our way of life and culture. They get around in gangs and there is escalating crime that is happening."

Parliamentarians against racism walk out of the Senate
during Hanson's maiden speech, 2016.

Some of Hanson's maiden speech 
photo credit: SBS

Does it matter what One Nation believes? Yes, it does. At the 2016 Federal election the party polled only 4% of the nationwide primary vote in the Senate, but in Queensland her party gained 9+% of the Senate vote! The primary effect at both state and federal levels could be to split the conservative parties’ vote and in particular to threaten the National Party's support base in Queensland.

When Pauline Hanson made her incendiary first speech to the Senate in 2016, all the Greens senators walked out. She claimed the nation was "in danger of being swamped by Muslims" with its people "living under sharia law and treated as second-class citizens" if urgent changes weren't made to immigration policies. She claimed they "bear a culture and ideology which is incom­pat­ible with our own" and called for an end to all immigration. She called for an end to halal certification and for a ban on the construct­ion of any further mosques - with those existing to be monit­ored, saying she did not believe Australia could remain secure under current immigration policies.

Just in case Australians didn't understand One Nation’s racism, Hanson added "Muslims are imprisoned at almost three times the average rate. The rate of unemployed and public dep­endency is two to three times greater than the national aver­age. Muslims are prominent in organised crime with associated violence and drug dealing. Anti-social behaviour is rampant, fuelled by hyper-masculine and misogynist culture. Multiple social surveys find that neighbours of Muslim settlement are suffering from collapsing social cohesion and fear of crime."

Since being elected to the parliament, One Nation has voted with the Conservative government on welfare cuts and to rest­ore the Australian Building and Construction Commission ag­ainst unions. Pauline Hanson also called for penalty rates to be abolished entirely, but failed in that endeavour. She opposed the plan to extend the taxpayer-funded paid parental leave scheme because it “could encourage women to get pregnant to access government benefits”.

What will happen in the upcoming state elections in Queensland and in the next federal elections, if they have to be declared earlier than expected?

Golden Dawn in Greece
photo credit: New Statesman

If you think that after WW2 an uber-nationalist, anti Semitic, anti-migration, anti-welfare party could never gain the bal­an­ce of power in civilised European countries, I urge you to examine re­cent polling results for:
1. the far-right Freedom Party in Aust­ria;
2. the Anti-European Union, Anti-Islam Party for Freedom in the Netherlands that incites discrimination against Muslims;
3. Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party. The neo-Nazi group, The Radical Camp organised a huge white-supremacist rally in Warsaw and flew racists from Slovakia and Hungary to join in.
4. Hungary’s right-wing, anti-Semitic Fidesz party and its ally even further to the right, Jobbik;
5. France’s anti-immigration and anti-European Union National Front party;
6. Greece’s most prominent neo-Nazi movement, Golden Dawn who found a new surge in support following Donald Trump’s ban on travellers from some Muslim-majority countries into the USA;
7. Alternative für Deutschland in Germany is anti-Islamic, anti-Semitic and Eurosceptic; and
8. The True Finns are strongly nationalist, Eurosceptic and anti-globalist.

I cannot directly compare Trump in the USA with Europeans because he is Head of State and not a politician in the nation’s parliament. However examine his executive order temporarily banning imm­ig­rants, travellers and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries - it perfectly defines his “disdain for human rights”. Examine his “rampant sexism”, “obsession with national security”, “obses­sion with crime and punishment”, and “rampant corruption and cronyism”. Of all the Early Warning Signs of Fascism on the list, so far “fraudulent elections” is one of the few than can be excluded from Trump’s list of achievements.